The Yoga Teacher I Never Met

August 29, 2016

 

 

 

“However powerful or disturbing something may appear to be, it is our reaction to it that determines its effects.” [1]

 

I have these words of TKV Desikachar’s in mind as I reflect on the news of his death on 8 August 2016 in Chennai, aged 78. TKV Desikachar will be remembered as a great yoga teacher whose intelligent, reasoned and compassionate approach to life and yoga contributed hugely to modern yoga and its application to healing. He was full of insights, wisdom and solicitude. He has left a wonderful legacy through his work, teachings and writings. He helped so many find the deeper teachings of yoga, to empower us to transform duḥkha and discover a profound meaning to our lives. He had, and will continue to have, a significant influence on my life. In a very real way, he is the yoga teacher I never met. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling this way.

 

I only knew TKV Desikachar (affectionately "Sir" to those who knew him personally) through those who have met and studied with him and through his books. In this article, I would like, if I may, to set out something of what I personally found so totally cool about TKV's method, his teachings.

 

TKV Desikachar was the son and long-time student of the great yoga master Śrī Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, these days increasingly credited as the “father of modern yoga”. Krishnamacharya was guru to BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and TKV Desikachar, among other notable modern yoga teachers.

 

By his own account Desikachar was a reluctant yogi, to the extent that his early career started in engineering rather than following in his father’s footsteps. A chance encounter with a New Zealander in the early 1960s changed all that. She opened TKV's eyes to the idea that his old man was, in fact, a great healer and yogi, which in turn led to a radical change of career direction. Desikachar determined then for his father to teach him yoga, because it was yoga that had cured the Kiwi women with chronic  insomnia from years of sleepless nights. "Dad" he said, "will you teach me yoga, but without god?" Obviously, I am taking liberties here; I can't speak Tamil. The answer, of course, was Yes.

 

You might have missed a few of important points about the story of the Kiwi, the Yoga Professor and his son. To elucidate:

 

  1. What blinds us to what is really going on (even in our own homes) is avidyā (I'll come back to this concept later on)

  2. Krishnamacharya taught according to the person in front of him. He taught yoga to the Kiwi to help her overcome insomnia. What he taught his son was quite different. That's a very tailored approach to teaching and requires knowledge and talent.

  3. It's a profound expression of ahimsā (non-violence) not to impose your wisdom on others. What the teacher can do with a student open to the possibility of personal transformation is to reveal what already lies half asleep in the student; nothing more [5].

 

I love Desikachar's way of expressing the concept of viṅyāsa krama as the careful construction of a yoga practice especially for the individual. TKV Desikachar mostly taught for the person rather than the group. It brings to mind the the idea of arranging a number of steps in a process into a special order in order to reach an appropriate goal or to take us in a certain direction. That goal or direction should be specially identified for the individual. Anxiety might be alleviated in one person by a bṛmhaṇa [energising] practice for one or a laṅghana [calming] practice for another. This specificity in the way the tools of yoga can be applied is so appealing to me. Viṅyāsa krama works in all walks of life, which is just as well because yoga can apply to all things.

 

 

At the back of his seminal 1995 work, The Heart of Yoga, you can find the practice in the right-hand photo. It's very clever and subtle in its efficiency and efficacy. For instance, there's no need for unnecessary warming up or cooling down; it's planned with simpler āsana-s proceeding to more complex and demanding ones. It finishes with easier āsana-s, which help relax the body and settle the breath for prāṇāyāma and dhāraṇa.  There is no lying relaxation at the end, because that would encourage tamas in the mind. Tamas is good for sleeping but not for meditation, which is a big goal in yoga. Rather it ends with sitting, which helps sattva to manifest in the mind. Meditation will fail without enough sattva (tranquillity, lucidity, detachment etc). One can measure the success of a yoga practice by how much sattva it reveals.

 

The role of the breath trumps the role of the body in this practice. Breathing affects the spine and the movement of prāṇa. Desikachar always encouraged the appropriate harnessing of the breath while practising yogāsana. The judicious use of movement in and out of an āsana co-ordinated with the breath, as well as staying in a posture has a reliable and positive effect on the body and especially the mind. Desikachar was very clear that yoga was about the mind. What we also see here in this practice plan is just a basic skeleton of a yoga practice. It does not show off Desikachar's love of the transformative power of chanting or the range of other tools which really do need to be tailored to the needs and abilities of the person who would commit to a practice.

 

 

Don't get me wrong, he did not ignore the health and vitality of the body. After all, the mind can't function without the support of the body. In 1976, he founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, which is committed to transmitting an authentic yoga through yoga classes and educational programmes, and healing through the application of yoga. What's interesting here is that yoga is sustained as both an ancient tradition, deeply anchored in pukka yoga texts, and at the same time fused to modern best practices. By founding the KYM, Desikachar ensured that Krishnamacharya’s teachings, as transmitted to TKV Desikachar and refined by him, continues. Long may it thrive as a place of yoga learning and healing. Indeed, I am hoping to study there at some point in the next 10 years or so.

 

As a young man in his 30s, Desikachar taught yoga to the famous philosopher J Krishnamurthi, who was then in his 70s.  It was Krishnamurthi who advised Desikachar not to hold himself out as a guru; and TKV never did. Ācārya, teacher, was a better label, but my impression is that Desikachar didn't do labels for himself. When he did use them, he gave them up. The best example of this relates to the time when TKV, seeing how yoga was flourishing and being branded in the West asked his father for a suitable name for his approach to teaching yoga. Viniyoga was the result.

 

His father, Krishnamacharya, was thinking of YS III.6, which suggests that yoga should be adapted to the individual and not the other way around. But Desikachar abandoned the name in the 00s: in the end yoga is yoga and not a brand. Viniyoga describes a process; but so does the simpler word Yoga. Viniyoga does not describe the goal; but the word Yoga does. Yoga can mean a process as well as the state of being that emerges from the yogic process.

 

 

Śrī TKV Desikachar was a private man. There is no Wikipedia page for him (at least not yet). It took me ages to work out what the TKV stood for [2], that he was married and had children. His choice of clothing suggested accountant, lawyer, or doctor rather than yoga teacher. There is an important lesson here: personal transformation is not about titles, looks or role. Being a teacher is more about making students discover the best within themselves by the application of an authentic form of yoga. Śrī TKV Desikachar himself was a good yoga student [6].

 

Desikachar showed me, through his books and the students of his I have had the fortune and pleasure to have met and studied with, that actions leave traces. Avidyā, which means something like misapprehension based on incorrect perception, affect our actions and these ill-informed actions lead to duḥkha, which means something like a feeling of being restricted, although it is often rendered into English as "suffering". One goal of yoga is to reduce the effects of incorrect perception and knowledge in order to act without error and without causing harm (duḥkha).

 

There are just too many things I have learnt vicariously from Śrī TKV Desikachar to cover in this short article. Even as I write this article, I feel my understanding deepens under his invisible hand and eye. What I have written doesn’t express adequately how I feel about yoga and how instrumental and inspirational Śrī TKV Desikachar was, and through the KYM, his students, books etc, still is.

 

Dying at the age of 78 seems so young, especially when one considers his father was 101 when he died. I can't recall Śrī TKV Desikachar ever claiming longevity from yoga. For him yoga could not guarantee us this or that particular benefit, even if we practised fervently.

 

“Yoga is not a recipe for less suffering, though it can offer us help in changing our attitude so that we have less avidyā and therefore greater freedom from duḥkha. We can understand the whole practice of yoga as a process of examining our habitual attitudes and behaviours and their consequences” [3].

 

Wishing you a safe journey Śrī TKV Desikachar. Thank you for leaving such consoling teachings and for willingly being the teacher I never met [4].

 

Notes:

 

[1] Quotation is from TKV Desikachar’s 1995 book, The Heart of Yoga.

[2] Tirumalai Krishnamacharya Venkata Desikachar, born 21 June 1938

[3] Quotation is from TKV Desikachar’s 1995 book, The Heart of Yoga, page 97

[4]  “Coming to learn of yoga only through reading leaves much to be desired. Yet, something worthwhile about yoga might be shared through the medium of the printed word”. This quotation is taken from TKV Desikachar’s published 1976 Colgate University lectures which were first printed in book form in 1980 under the title Religiousness in Yoga

[5] Image from Paul Harvey's wonderful website – www.yogastudies.org - Paul studied under Śrī TKV Desikachar for many years

[6] See the dedication page in TKV Desikachar’s 1995 book, The Heart of Yoga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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